Howard Kurtz: Jockeying to Replace Russert, Fox News and Tea Party Promotion, More

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, April 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washingston Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, April 20, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.


Injecting his opinion?: Hello Howard -- Great column today, but I am questioning your supposition that George S. was "injecting his opinion" when you wrote the following: "But how, Stephanopoulos pressed Gingrich, did that square 'with what you were just saying earlier about the problems of debts and deficits?'" It seems to me that he was simply following where the facts and data led him. Or maybe you agree with Colbert that "facts have a known liberal bias"? News Show Throne Is Up for Grabs (Post, April 20)

Howard Kurtz: I don't think I made that clear. There are lots of examples of Stephanopoulos offering his own analysis or steering the conversation in the direction he wants to go. Challenging Newt Gingrich on a perceived inconsistency was not meant as an example of the host offering his own opinion. Of course that's basic journalism and what any competent moderator should do. It was meant more as a broader example of how George has taken charge of that program.


New York, N.Y.: In your chat last week, you included Neil Cavuto as one of the "commentators who are paid for their opinions." Really? According to his Fox bio, "Neil Cavuto was named anchor and managing editor of business news for the Fox News Channel in July 1996. He is now the senior vice president of Business News and host of 'Your World With Neil Cavuto.'" Senior VP of Business News is an opinion position? It sounds like straight news to me.

Howard Kurtz: Well, Cavuto wears two hats. He is a Fox News executive, yes, but he is also a daily host and I don't think he would deny for a second that he dishes out plenty of his own opinions on the air.

It's important to make these distinctions. At the tea party tax protests last week, the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity served as cheerleaders and star attractions, whipping up the crowd with anti-tax, anti-spending and in some cases anti-Obama rhetoric. Cody Willard, a Fox Business Network anchor, delivered a brief rant: "Guys, when are we going to wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country?"

On the other hand, I erred during last week's chat in saying that Greta Van Susteren was among those leading the charge. She covered one of the tax protests but was not endorsing them or taking an ideological stance. I've never seen her as having a particular agenda, unlike some of her Fox colleagues.

There were particular journalists at CNN and MSNBC who also performed badly on April 15th. And the mainstream media, including the WP, were late in recognizing the significance of the protests, whatever role Fox played in pumping them up. So I think it's important to be as specific as possible in these critiques and not paint with an overly broad brush.


Arlington, Va.: Is Gingrich a paid commenter on the Sunday news shows?

Howard Kurtz: Newt Gingrich is not a paid Sunday commentator, but he is a paid analyst for Fox News Channel.


Silver Spring, Md.: With Fox actively supporting the Tea Party protest movement, the channel has cast aside any last claim to being fair and balanced. Does that bring any tangible repercussions as a broadcast network? Does the FCC have to review anything? Since FNC is a cable-only operation, are they able to separate themselves from their local, over-the-air operations? (I would note that the local Fox5 is fairly balanced, if slightly liberal.)

Howard Kurtz: Again, I don't want to say EVERYONE at Fox News was backing the tea parties. In any event, cable news is largely beyond the reach of the FCC. And even at the broadcast networks, the FCC has no role -- and should have no role, for crying out loud -- in regulating news content. The commission can fine networks and stations for obscenity or fraud, and is supposed to consider whether they act "in the public interest" at license renewal time. But that's about it.


Long Island, N.Y.: Howard,

Thanks for the chat.

Regarding the Mike Allen/Politico brouhaha, Glenn Greenwald made one very good point in dissecting Allen's response.

Allen apparently received the e-mail from the ex-Bush official unsolicited. After he received it, he then asked the writer if he could put his name to it and he said no.

It's a cozy relationship whereby everything is presumed to be on background unless I give you approval to use my name. Shouldn't it be the other way around, especially if the e-mail was unsolicited?

And aren't there plenty of ex-admin officials who would welcome going on-record to rebut the Obama admin?

Howard Kurtz: I don't agree with the first point but I do agree with the second. If someone sends me an e-mail and says it's off the record, I'm going to respect that--but I don't have to use it! There are a number of former Bush administration officials who have been happy to go on the record ripping President Obama. I don't believe an ex-official should have been granted anonymity for that kind of harsh attack.

In my column last week on Politico, I noted a story that Mike Allen had done that included all anonymous sources and quoted no one by name. This was his response:

"We would never have gotten such candid and informative guidance on the record. Unnamed sources can serve the reader if they are imparting frank data or genuine insight, as opposed to spin."


Steffy: In the storied history of the Sunday morning shows, has there ever been another host who has worked for a president or senior elected official? Inside knowledge aside, you don't get those staff jobs if you're not ideologically in tune with the boss.

Howard Kurtz: Yes. His name was Tony Snow, and he hosted "Fox News Sunday" for nearly a decade before becoming George W. Bush's press secretary. Tony had previously worked for Bush 41. And, of course, Tim Russert had worked for Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. I am not a fan of this revolving door, but I do think that ex-politicos can prove themselves over time in the journalism arena.


Atlanta, Ga.: So, did David Shuster on MSNBC get demoted? I presume 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was doing poorly in ratings?

Howard Kurtz: I don't believe that MSNBC was unhappy with Shuster hosting "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." But given its concerted effort to hire more liberal commentators, the channel was clearly delighted to grab Ed Schultz for the 6 p.m. hour. It's not fair to say Shuster has been demoted, though, as he will anchor the 3 to 5 p.m. period for MSNBC.


Fairlee, Vt.: On the Fox News support of the tea parties, how is it possible that credible journalists like Chris Wallace and Juan Williams could stomach working for a network that not only covers the anti-government rallies, but actively promotes them, going so far as to provide network celebrities as speakers and MCs? Is it just the money that keeps them tied to Fox?

Howard Kurtz: I can't read their minds, but again we return to the distinction between journalists such as Wallace and those who are paid to offer opinions, such as Hannity, O'Reilly, Beck and (as a part-time contributor) Juan Williams. In the same vein, everyone who reports for MBNBC doesn't necessarily agree with Olbermann and Maddow, and reporters at CNN don't necessarily agree with Lou Dobbs.


"The Significance of the Protests": Not to burst any bubbles, but more people attended a single anti-immigration rally in Chicago four years ago than attended the "Tea Parties" nationwide last week. (I was at both). Two major differences: 1) No national cable network sponsorship of those immigration rallies 2) We weren't talking about them all week after!

P.S. Those anti-immigration rallies attracted in the millions that day, just as the anti-war rallies throughout early 2003 did. The media and you have gone way overboard on the coverage of these Tax Day non-events.

Howard Kurtz: The protests did not draw huge numbers, like some of the major rallies on the war or abortion, to take two examples. But tens of thousands of people turned out on a weekday in cities across the country (about 250,000 total, according to the calculation of Nate Silver at People showed up for various reasons: mad about taxes (even though Obama has just cut taxes for 95 percent); mad about government spending; mad at the president; or just plain mad. But the events did offer some insight into the grievances of those who are unhappy with the country's direction.


Richmond, Va.: Hi, I would be happy to pay to read online, since I simply do not want a paper copy. I realize that making the site pay-only, even micropayment, might not be feasible. Why isn't the notion of making micropayment a 'voluntary' option getting any traction? I'd bet you'd be surprised by the response, and it wouldn't cost you those that want it for free. I know it's not a long-term solution, but hey, any extra money coming in would be good, yes? Think of it like a voluntary-admission fee museum.

Howard Kurtz: I just mentioned that to Marcus Brauchli, the executive editor, since it comes up here every week. He said he would give it some thought.


Mike Allen vs. Greenwald: Mike Allen said he used the anonymous ex-Bush official because he wanted the "official" Bush response and he wanted readers to judge whether the Bush officials response was sour grapes or valid criticism. But isn't an anonymous complaint by definition not "official"? And Allen admitted he edited the ad Hominem attacks out of the Bush official's response. If he was truly including to let his readers decide if this officials complaints were just a baseless attack, wouldn't he leave the baseless attack stuff in the attack?

Howard Kurtz: I don't have any problem with Allen editing out the more vitriolic aspects of a former government official who doesn't have the guts to put his name to his criticism. I just question whether Allen should have quoted this person's e-mail at all, and in so doing give a free shot to a person hiding behind a curtain of anonymity. There are times when anonymity is necessary for good journalism -- like quoting a dissenter in the current administration -- but this is a former official who's hardly in danger of losing his job. I do, however, give Mike credit for acknowledging the criticism and responding to it.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I've read a lot about Palin's abortion comments over the past few days, but based on my reading habits, it appeared that all the major papers initially missed the big news from her speech, i.e. she briefly considered an abortion and just focused on her other remarks. How could that nugget have been missed like that?

Howard Kurtz: I don't know. It sure seems like news to me.


Fixing the papers: What you need to do is have a meeting among the "national" papers and large multicity newspaper owners and other news associations like the AP.

They need to sit down and come to an agreement on what can or can't be shared among newspaper stories and what rates to charge.

What might work would be a Web site front that you pay to access whichever sites you choose.

If the Post or the Times decides to charge there will be ways for people to still see the stories. Even now the New York Times charges users to access older articles (of say a week ago) but you can find the same story by googling it where its found on another newspaper's Web site or a copy of the article on someone's blog.

I have an annual subscription to the ESPN site where many columns are ones you have to pay to read. The membership is like $30/year.

If I were to pay for membership, I would want to be able to get articles that were printed in the paper. The Post has that buried in the Web site where it lists print edition articles.

Howard Kurtz: On your last point, just about everything in the daily newspaper is on I don't think it's hard to find, and you can always search for a keyword to track down elusive articles or look under topic headings (Politics, Style, etc).

As for your broader point, I wish that could work. But what about the newspapers that don't agree to join hands under this subscription tent? Wouldn't an awful lot of people go to other news sites, aggregators and blogs to check out the day's news? That would mean the Post, Times and whoever else was inside the tent would lose readers and, as a result, ad revenue. The only answer is to offer ESPN-like special content that readers would think worthy of an annual fee.


Charlottesville, Va.: Howie,

Do you think the media -- and specifically the electronic media -- owe a public duty to tone down or better contextualize the partisan rhetoric of their broadcasts? When a leading commentator says he wants the president to fail, then it's my personal opinion that some adult supervision is called for; in my view, one can't exercise a right and ignore the duties inherent in it without ultimately threatening the safety to exercise that right. Your views?

Thanks for taking the question.

Howard Kurtz: Who exactly is going to provide the adult supervision? In the example you provide, it was Rush Limbaugh who said he wants Obama to fail, in the sense that he wants Obama's policies to fail. He's a commentator whose show is heard on 600 radio stations. No one can tell him what to say, and in my view no one should, any more than they should tell liberal commentators what to say. Most people are sophisticated enough to recognize the distinctions between, say, a newspaper reporter and a radio talk show host. The only real check on a radio commentator is if he alienates his audience and loses enough market share that his syndicator, or individual stations, decide to pull him off the air.


Toledo, Ohio: With your response to the "Significance of protest" question that only 250,000 participated in all the cities in the country, and that one channel pretty much did wall-to-wall coverage, how exactly was the coverage not adequate (which I think is what you suggested earlier in the chat)? I saw brief mentions of the events in the Post and on CNN, which I think was a pretty appropriate response to an event that was at best represented an extreme political viewpoint that less than 6 months ago was soundly rejected by America -- why cover it more than what was given?

Howard Kurtz: Why is it an extreme political viewpoint to protest taxes and spending? Isn't that a traditional older than the republic? And didn't John McCain, who indeed lost the last election, nonetheless get about 47 percent of the vote? That would be like saying that Americans shouldn't have turned out to protest the Iraq war after 2004 because their view was rejected when President Bush was reelected.


Commenter vs analyst: That's a mighty fine point you're putting on the distinction between analyst and commenter (Gingrich). An analyst offers his "analysis", i.e., his opinion...a commenter offers his, uh, opinion. hairsplitting, really. Paid comments are paid comments. Analysis is not fact.

Howard Kurtz: I wasn't trying to split hairs. Gingrich is a paid commentator for Fox News. But he doesn't get anything when he appears on This Week or Meet the Press or some other broadcast network show.


NBC empire and division of labor: I may be wrong in thinking this, but I see the NBC family of networks as a set of separate missioned entities. So, NBC is news journalism while, CNBC has a particular focus that is specific news and opinion and MSNBC is almost entirely opinion. That doesn't bother me. I'll skip Olbermann, because he's tiresome and I have as little interest in hearing him bloviate as I do Glenn Beck or O'Reilly. Quite frankly I don't watch Fox, but do they have a similar division of types?

Howard Kurtz: Yes, in that you get straight news from a Bret Baier or Bill Hemmer (formerly of CNN) and raw opinion from Hannity and Beck. The problem that MSNBC faces, which I wrote about during the campaign, is that NBC News journalists frequently appear on MS (and in the case of Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory, have hosted programs). So to some viewers there is a blurring of the lines. That was exacerbated when MSNBC had two of its top opinion guys, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, anchor on primary nights and during the conventions, saying they were now donning different hats. MS finally abandoned that in the fall in the face of rising criticism, turning over the anchoring duties during the debates and on Election Night to David Gregory.


RE: Supervision...: You said "Who exactly is going to provide the adult supervision?"

Do you think an ombudsman/public editor for each network to at least address these concerns would be a start? ESPN has one, and they play in the "sandbox".

Howard Kurtz: I'm a big fan of ombudsmen and think they hold news organizations accountable, even as a number of newspapers are dropping them because of plummeting revenue. The New York Times, a longtime holdout, is a better newspaper today for having created its public editor position after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal in 2003. But most radio talk show hosts don't work for national networks; the biggest ones work for a home station and a syndication company. So they hold forth without having to deal with anyone resembling an ombudsman.


Chat fees: WP should charge for access to these chats. It's kind of like a VIP lounge... Somedays, the only part of the site I access is the chat section. It's my favorite part of the site because I feel like you get both the objective news of the day (since many of the chats are hosted by the reporters themselves) as well as the (mostly) intelligent opinions of those writing in. I would totally pay for it.

Howard Kurtz: You and about 10 other people?

I like the fact that the chats are available to everyone. If you had a package of special features that included the chats, maybe you could charge a few bucks. But people are awfully resistant to paying for online news content, as we know.


Facebook: Howie, what do you think of the crazy flamewars that breakout after many of your Facebook posts? Can you ask folks to tamp it down a bit....although at least there, we know who the vitriol and invective is coming from. Progress.

Howard Kurtz: I enjoy the feedback I get on both my Facebook and Twitter pages, but it does seem like some commenters delight in smacking each other around. I wish there were a way to keep it civil, but other than banning people, I'm not sure what that is.


Berryville, Va.: Thanks for continuing to be a voice of reason, Howie. It's reassuring, week in and week out.

Howard Kurtz: Many thanks, Berryville. And a nice note to end on.

And thank you all for joining the chat.


Kurtz has been the Washington Post's media reporter since 1990. He is also the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and the author of "Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War," "Media Circus," "Hot Air," "Spin Cycle" and "The Fortune Tellers: Inside Wall Street's Game of Money, Media and Manipulation." Kurtz talks about the press and the stories of the day in "Media Backtalk."

Media Backtalk transcripts archive


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